Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Artists and Sisters in a New World

It always surprises me to find how much novels change over the years—change, that is, in my reaction to them and my feelings about them. When I reread a book that I read in college, it often seems like an entirely new book. And the same is

Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell

true of writers that I knew and loved when I was young. As you grow older you sometimes see them in a new light. Virginia Woolf was a writer much admired by the English majors that I knew in college, at least all the female ones. She wrote sensitively about the innermost feelings of women and their relationships with friends, families and lovers in a way that was different from the male novelists whose books we read in other courses. Virginia Woolf had a sister, a painter named Vanessa, but I never learned much about her. Now I am finding out about Vanessa.

This week I finished Priya Parmar’s fascinating historical novel Vanessa and Her Sister, based on the lives of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and their family and friends who formed the famous Bloomsbury group in early 20th century England. The two women at the center of the group were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen and his wife Julia. They grew up in comfortable circumstances and were close to their brothers Adrian and Thoby. After their parents died, it was the boys who brought university friends into the circle of young people who now formed the household. Neither Vanessa nor Virginia, of course, went to university as very few women did in those days. It was the men who went out into the world and learned about art, history, and the ideas circulating in the greater world outside of their sheltered London neighborhood. The Stephens girls were

Studio of Vanessa Bell
Studio of Vanessa Bell

beautiful, charming, and witty and more than that they had a comfortable home and plenty of free time to entertain and discuss ideas about the changing times in which they all lived. In the early years before World War I, Vanessa painted, Virginia wrote and no one worried about having to get a job or do the housework.

Priya Parmar has captured the feeling of the time and has given a voice to Vanessa Bell so that both she and her sister become three-dimensional characters. We can see how the two women interacted with one another and the strains which both of them felt growing up as artists in a world dominated by men. Virginia’s emotional fragility took a toll on the whole family, especially Vanessa, but her books become even more impressive in view of the restricted world in which she lived. Vanessa’s strength in developing her painting and becoming an artist while at the same time managing most of the logistics of holding the family, and later her marriage, together is remarkable.

Reading Vanessa and Her Sister will broaden your world if you care about books and writing and you can have the extra treat of reading Prya Parmar’s blog post about the research that went into writing it. You won’t soon forget Parmar’s novel and you may go back to reading Virginia Woolf’s books too. It’s the kind of reading that should make for a good year ahead.